On the scrubs in the London of their dreams: The trip of a lifetime, a bit rough at the edges Report by Esther Oxford

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was dark by the time the Hungarians arrived at Wormwood Scrubs. One by one they stepped off the minibus and down on to London soil, the stuff of dreams. And one by one their eyes registered dismay as they looked around.

This was Tent City, they told themselves, the city within the city they had heard so much about. This was it - a field next to a main road with a post-war shower block and some ex-army tents. The 'backdrop was of council estates, the 'view a common and some shrubs. Thundering in the background, trains could be heard. And somewhere in all that darkness was a prison.

Tent City - home to the Hungarians for five nights last week - has seen the same initial reaction again and again for the past 23 years. The visitors' book is dotted with complaints about 'filthy showers, loos and cooking facilities.

But the camping ground in East Acton was not set up to be a luxury establishment. When Christians first established it in 1971 it was supposed to be a place where budget travellers of any religion could stay.

The organisers are not Christian anymore. They are anti-fascists. And they are striving for an environment where 'people can feel free to express themselves regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, race or spiritual beliefs blah, blah, blah.

Their 'environment is a corner of a common filled with 10 'communal tents and a shower block. There is a 'stage for evening entertainment, a small open shed for cooking, and enough space for tenants to pitch private tents or sleep in the blessed outdoors. Wormwood Scrubs was not the founders' first choice; Green Park was. But Westminster council kicked up so Wormwood Scrubs it had to be - a lonely,, empty field in a 'crap area, with 'really minimal local facilities, according to Maxine Lambert, 25, running the camp for the second year.

The organisers do their best to maintain the site. The shower block got a lick of paint at the start of the season and international volunteers are given the job of day-to-day cleaning. But the camp is geared to youthful travellers - there for the 'international atmosphere and the 'friendly staff. Most are not so concerned about sparky loos. Most are happy with a bottle of beer and plenty of lolling, said Mischa Eligoloff, one of the organisers of Tent City.

But demands are changing. Since the collapse of Communism in East Europe, Tent City has witnessed an influx of middle-aged professionals from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, many of whom have saved up to four months wages to pay for a 'two-week trip of a lifetime.

The trips are usually whistle-paced tours of 'Europe done within 14 days. Men and women in their forties and fifties to whom 'The West has always symbolised 'choice, 'freedom and 'independence save up huge sums of money (about pounds 80) and set aside two weeks of precious holiday time to reassure themselves that they were right.

The words 'luxury or 'relaxation do not come into it. These are highly organised, tightly scheduled trips with no room for manoeuvre. The tourists bring the tents; the organisers bring the food. Jars of pickled vegetables, sausage and potatoes are the staple diet. They keep. Six days into the two-week trip round Germany, Holland and England, this particular group of Hungarians was still eating home provisions.

Tent City's organisers try their best to accommodate this new breed of visitor. Two of their volunteers are Hungarian ('It always helps visitors to feel at home if there is an international staff, Mr Eligoloff said) and they were immediately deployed to offer a welcome. Two crates of free beer were also presented. 'It helps them get into the swing of things, said Mr Eligoloff.

But for the Hungarians who arrived last Thursday night, nothing could ease the initial shock. Most were teachers but an electric engineer and a plastic surgeon were there too. Few considered themselves 'rich or well provided for in Budapest. But they knew what 'decency and 'good hygiene were, one remarked sternly.

'When the organisers showed us photographs of Tent City we knew it would be strange, said Zsombor Mosoni, a reluctant traveller, here with his mother. 'But not like this. The older women looked at these men with funny hair, at the games, the beer and the music. They thought they would get attacked or raped.

Several Hungarians had wanted to leave - immediately. They were told there was nowhere else to go, at least until tomorrow. But the next morning, showered, rested and filled with food, most had mellowed. Yes, they liked the atmosphere and the people were indeed very kind, said one or two determined to be grateful and polite. They might stay another night, they conceded. They liked the view too.

One or two of the younger ones later went as far as to say they liked Tent City. 'We are used to such strange haircuts and the beer,, said Zsombor with a note of pride in his voice. 'We have such people in Budapest.

Zoli Nagy is an electric engineer with a wife and three children. 'London, he said, is 'the city of my dreams. That morning he had got up at 5am jiggling with excitement. He had made his way to East Acton station, bought a ticket, and got on the first train that came along.

He sat on it for a while then looked at his watch. It was soon time to go back for the 7.30am departure. So he got off at the next station - Bond Street - the name rang a bell, and looked around. He had to admit, he was a bit disappointed by the 'greyness. There were repair men there doing some work. But for a moment he relished the cleaner sweeping the pavement and the tradesmen opening stalls.

A joyous thump leapt in his stomach when his second double-decker bus went past. Then he looked at his watch again and decided it was time to go back to East Acton. When he arrived his travelling companions were just unzipping their tents.

Back in Budapest, Mr Nagy lives in a two-room flat with his family. Mr Nagy counts himself lucky. He has a job. He wanted to see England with his wife while he still has a job. But it is an England without the pleasures of a West End show or a restaurant meal or some shopping. Instead the treat is a pint of Guinness in a real English pub. And a whiz tour of the English sights.

That morning was typical. The party set off at 7.30. By 9.30 they had 'seen the sights of London from the window of the minibus. By 10 they were inside Westminster Cathedral, then St Margaret's Church, then the House of Lords. At 1.30 it was back to the bus and the shock of a parking ticket then on to St Paul's. The Tower of London was next, then Tower Bridge then Greenwich. The evening activity was to be a surprise.

For 10 hours nobody bought any food or drink. Instead there was a packed lunch of plain ham sandwiches. They were stoic about their limited budgets. 'We do not have the money, they answered simply. 'That is why we stay at Tent City. Nor did they seem to miss small pleasures. They didn't indulge in them in Hungary so why should they here?

Some had not realised how expensive London is. Antal Cuhorka, a general surgeon at Uzsoki hospital in Budapest, and a private plastic surgeon on the side, came to London with one delight in mind. A loyal fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber (he has seen Evita, Cats and Jesus Christ Superstar in Budapest) it was his dream to see The Phantom of the Opera. It was the first thing he asked, in stilted, stumbling English. 'How can I get tickets?

He looked bewildered when told the usual price. Dreams died in his eyes. He didn't say anything apart from 'Oh. But later, when we passed the theatre, Dr Cuhorka had his forehead pressed against the window. I tried to read his face but his head didn't turn.

It turned out The Phantom of the Opera was not showing that weekend anyway. Someone suggested Sunset Boulevard or Starlight Express. By that time he had resigned himself to a no-show. He bought some postcards of London instead.

I left them late in the afternoon. They still had many hours of sightseeing to do. They carried on through the night, then all through Saturday, Sunday and Monday, relentlessly covering the Tate, the Victoria and Albert museum, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park. The only time they took off was on Saturday night. They spent the evening at Tent City. That night it was International Evening - visitors stand up on stage and entertain two or three hundred guests. Pleased at the invitation to sing, the Hungarians performed three folk songs. Nobody knew what they were about except for the two Hungarian volunteers - and they were too grumpy to tell. But the singers got a huge applause.

It turned out the songs were about a chicken. What the chicken symbolised, nobody knew. But the Hungarians were happy. When they went back to their minute space behind the minibus it was with a sense of well-being that they fell asleep.

Mr Eligoloff knew because they had stayed until Monday.

(Photographs omitted)

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